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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Being Suzette Jordan

Being Suzette Jordan

In a society often blindly vulnerable to false notions of patriarchy, misplaced chauvinism, and a moribund sense of morality, it wasn’t easy being Suzette

A file photo of Suzette Jordan. Photo: HT (HT)Premium
A file photo of Suzette Jordan. Photo: HT

The day we met was not a significant one. It had been two years, seven months and five days, Suzette Jordan said with exactitude and resignation-hope, since she was raped by five men in a car on Kolkata’s Park Street. It was the night of 5 February 2012. Of the five, the two main accused are still at large. The Telegraph reported that the other jailed trio have been active on Facebook till recently—after smuggling in smartphones—their bare-torsoed displays of abs and biceps and such status updates like “Do I look like a villain?", in the confounding ways of Facebook, garnering a few dozen “likes".

Jordan died at the age of 40 on Friday of a combination of meningitis and encephalitis in a Kolkata hospital,

At the small, rented home of the Anglo-Indian Jordan family in the distinctly middle-class neighbourhood of Behala, there were framed images of Christ on the walls. The red oxide floor was faded. The room where we spoke was unkempt, and Jordan’s sister tapped away at a computer in the other room. Jordan’s two daughters, aged 18 and 16, were visiting their grandmother, who lived nearby. Jordan was a single mother. The clothesline in the little courtyard drooped under the weight of women’s clothes.

In the tumultuous hours following her gang-rape, it was Jordan’s grandmother, principal of a city school and “among the strongest women in my life along with my mother", insisted that Jordan lodge a first information report (FIR) at the Park Street police station. Her two daughters had been pillars of strength too. Jordan—despite the initial reluctance of the police and their sexist comments—managed to file an FIR. If the rape “ravaged her body, soul and trust in human beings", the police report went on to ransack her world. It defined who she was.

The West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who earlier as an opposition leader would often lead the chorus against rape, rubbished her allegations as a manufactured story. Her colleagues in the ruling Trinamool Congress party, Madan Mitra and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, questioned why Jordon, then a 37-year-old single mother of two, would be out drinking till late in a nightclub and mentioned that the rape was a result of a deal gone wrong with a prospective client. To the outside world, the rape itself receded, and Jordan became a liar, a person of dubious moral character, and a sex worker. Even the police officer, Damayanti Sen, who cracked the case and established the gangrape, was transferred out to an insignificant posting.

“People kept telling me that I’ll be the one who’ll be arrested," Jordon had told me that day.

If the state ganged up against her, so did a section of society. On 13 September last year, Jordan was denied entry into a south Kolkata restaurant, allegedly for being “the Park Street rape victim." Her many efforts to find a stable job had been turned down consistently; one prospective employer explained that “the company did not wish to be unnecessarily highlighted." Having studied till Class X at Kolkata’s Pratt Memorial School, finding a job had never been an issue for Jordan before the brutish night of 2012. Jordan had previously worked as a telephone operator, at a call centre, as a salesgirl and a receptionist at a five-star hotel in Kolkata.

On the streets, she heard people mutter “Park Street" and “rape victim" when they walked past her. Jordan had people calling her up and asking for her “rate" to attend a party. She had also learnt to recognize the judgmental attitude of some of her interviewers. “I have to not just relive the rape but get re-raped every day," she had said.

In a society often blindly vulnerable to false notions of patriarchy, misplaced chauvinism, misogyny and a moribund sense of morality, it was not easy being Suzette Jordon.

“Yes, I’m a person. Yes, I have a name. Yes, I got raped," she had said, “And no, I wasn’t at fault."

Rape cannot be anybody’s fault but the perpetrator’s, and Jordan, in a remarkable show of strength, had appeared on live television refusing to be blurred and identified any longer as only the “Park Street rape victim/survivor". She had busied herself with not just reclaiming her life and identity, but also in helping other sufferers regain theirs.

While coming out as Suzette Jordan, she had opened herself up to further scrutiny, but it had also allowed her to be a magnet for fellow survivors, who often find no one to share their horror with. A portion of Jordan’s daily life was spent sharing notes over social media with those who had been sexually assaulted or in maintaining her public Facebook page, where she posted news and informative articles on sexual rights infringement and legal procedures, or assertive messages on womanhood and civility.

“It is helping me a lot when I see other women trying to break through," she had said. “Many women don’t want to be identified but they deserve a hug for sharing their story with me. Your body may heal but this," she had said, pointing at her head, “doesn’t heal easily and it helps when you can find a form of release."

When not playing an activist’s role online, Jordan had hit the road protesting against atrocities on women. The National Crime Records Bureau data has pointed out that West Bengal has recorded the second highest incidents of rape in India for seven years between 2004-2010, and in 2012, the year of the Park Street incident, topped the chart for crimes against women. On various occasions, Jordon had spoken out in public spaces like Allen Park in Kolkata, treaded the streets during the city’s edition of Slut Walk or in protest marches, both the placards she held and her own cheerful unveiled presence sending out the strongest of messages.

“It is important that society sees her for the questions she is raising. Why are people pointing fingers at her, a rape survivor? How much do we know about the men who raped her, about their girlfriends, what the men wore that night or how much they drank?" asks Anuradha Kapoor, director of Swayam, a Kolkata-based women’s rights organization which had also come forward to provide “emotional support" to Jordan.

Kapoor was among the 12 women arrested by Kolkata Police on 13 June last year when trying to hand over a letter of protest to the chief minister highlighting two cases of rape and murder in West Bengal, an incident that typifies “the shrinking of democratic spaces for dissent across the country" for her.

Jordan has used every possible platform to speak out against sexual abuse in India, “a plague" as she had termed it. Be it as a guest speaker at a school in Gujarat, as someone opening up to anchor-actor Aamir Khan in an episode of Satyamev Jayate or visiting the Saket Court in Delhi every few months to speak as a rape survivor to a rotating audience base of lawyers, advocates and police personnel.

Sporting multiple tattoos and a shock of distinctive orange-hued frizzy hair, Jordan had never let the social insecurities of her being Anglo-Indian—a community of mixed European and Indian descent and with their own set of easy-going cultural norms— affect her.

“A lady asked me if my 16-year-old daughter drinks," she had said. “I asked her if her own 16-year-old drinks. She said an emphatic no. As Anglo-Indians, we do enjoy a drink at home with our parents on social occasions and the community in general loves to party. But then, why should society think that our daughters start drinking before the permissible age?"

Instead of wallowing in cultural anxieties, Jordan’s riposte had often been through a free-spirited feistiness. She had previously kicked and hit back at molesters and gropers in public buses and city streets. For her girlfriends the message had been the same: “give it back to them." With two young daughters to look after, when she separated from her husband in 1988, it was with the same ethic of not silently going through the motions of a bad marriage.

Otherwise positive and smiling, Jordan’s anger was reserved for the bestiality of the group of men inside the moving car, the blank expression of the mother of a raped and mutilated girl in Kamduni village whom Jordan had gone to meet, or when she had addressed some of her accusers. “How dare they call me a prostitute? Even if I were one, should I get raped? A prostitute earns for her family. She is not standing there for you to rape her? Would you go and give the prostitute girl a house, money food and a job and say don’t prostitute? Balls."

When we met, Jordan was grappling with another worry: the state of her mind. She would get strange nightmares, waking up gasping in the middle of the night, and could no longer use the underground Kolkata Metro and other similar “closed and claustrophobic spaces". There was also a stalker, she had said, and moments later, we had both heard footsteps outside the door. Jordan ran out to check, so did I. Outside, there was no one we could spot in the late evening darkness. None of the OB vans, police jeeps, the cars of activists, or onlookers. Just the four stray dogs of her neighbourhood who came running at her. They had clawed at her denim-clad feet, wagged their tails in delight and tried to lick her outstretched hands.

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Published: 13 Mar 2015, 03:05 PM IST
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